Won't Back Down
By Scott Elliott
October 2, 2012
Won't Back Down is a controversial film directed by a self-proclaimed liberal Democrat, Daniel Barnz, and embraced by Republicans. It was shown at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions, and it has been publicly condemned by the president of the second largest teacherʼs union in America.
And all this occurred before the film was released.
The film takes on the hot-button issue of failing schools in our country and examines what can be done about the problem. It is based on actual events and is now in theaters.
The movie tells the story of Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the mother of a dyslexic child struggling in school. Jamie befriends Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), and they work to take over a failing school. Michael Perry (Oscar Isaac), an impassioned teacher at the school, is interested in what the two women are doing but cautious about joining their cause. Other teachers, such as Nonaʼs friend Breena Harper (Rosie Perez), are opposed when they first learn of the takeover plan. Evelyn Riske (Holly Hunter) portrays the head of the teacherʼs union who fights the plan all the way.
Wonʼt Back Down is an emotional film with strong, emotional performances by Gyllenhaal and Davis. There are many heartbreaking scenes in the film, including one that takes place early on, where Jamieʼs daughter, Malia Fitzpatrick (Emily Alyn Lind), does not get chosen in a lottery drawing for a charter school, which is reminiscent of a scene from the documentary Waiting for Superman. Wonʼt Back Down, unlike other films about education, does not feature many scenes that take place in the classroom but instead focuses on the bureaucracy that takes place behind the scenes.
The film is not without its flaws; it's a Hollywoodized film that sometimes oversimplifies the problem of public education in America. At the end of the movie, all the problems are resolved, but in real life this rarely happens. Throughout the film, Jamie and Nona are told that most people who try what they are doing fail, and I am sure that is true, but you don't see filmmakers rushing to make movies about the lives of the people who have failed.
There are other films and TV series that do a better job of taking a look at the educational problem in America. Waiting for Superman gives more statistics and focuses on multiple real-life families. Season four of the TV show The Wire does one of the best jobs ever of addressing the many problems that some inner city schools face. Still, even though other shows may give us a clearer picture of the problem, Wonʼt Back Down accomplishes what it sets out to do: It presents an emotional story that will move and motivate most audience members.
Although some have accused the film of being political, I think those accusations have missed the point. The film does make some characterizations that I am sure are not completely accurate, but it also strives to show the complexities of the issue of failing schools. Oscar Isaacʼs character is a teacher who understands what Jamie and Nona are trying to do but also knows unions have done many good things. Holly Hunterʼs character is the head of the teacherʼs union but also feels some allegiance to the students in the schools.
As a parent of a young child, I couldn't care less about what label (Republican or Democrat) one puts on a school system that works, and if I knew my childʼs school was failing, I would try everything I could to fix the problem. It seems this is the mentality the filmmakers had. Wonʼt Back Down does not attempt to rally parents and others to one side or another. It calls us all to stand up for what is right and to do what is best for each and every child.